By using the non-exclusive tag, any team can sign Graham to a contract… provided such a team is willing to give up two first round draft picks to the Saints on top of the huge contract needed to lure Graham. On the surface, giving up so much capital for a
tight end non-quarterback seems absurd, as the new Collective Bargaining Agreement has increased the value of rookies to a team. Players in their first four seasons contribute nearly half of all value provided by NFL players each season, and these players are now on very cheap contracts. As a result, teams should be even more hesitant to trade draft picks for players than they were before.
But that analysis doesn’t foreclose the idea that for a handful of teams, giving up picks for Graham could be a smart idea. And here’s something important to keep in mind: a team can sign Graham after the draft, giving up only 2015 and 2016 first round picks. We can all agree that there is some time value to draft picks; what does this mean for those future first round picks? Are they equivalent to a 2014 2nd and 2014 3rd? Well, probably not, but they’re not equal to two 2014 firsts, either.
Signing Graham would be a poor decision for most teams, but a team that meets several of these qualifications could justify the decision:
- In a win-now window, i.e., a team that has a very good chance of winning a title in 2014 and 2015, and just an average chance down the road.
- That would benefit specifically from harming the Saints
- One offensive playmaker away from being a challenger
- Expecting to have very good records in 2014 and 2015
- In great salary cap shape, mitigating the impact of a large Graham contract
The Seahawks, with huge contracts on the horizon for Russell Wilson, Earl Thomas, and Richard Sherman, along with several others, are probably out of the mix because Seattle is not in great long-term cap shape. And for most teams, giving up two first round picks is just too much. But there are a few teams that might find this to be a very tempting move:
With Tony Gonzalez gone, Graham would be a natural fit to replace him. A dream scenario might be drafting Jadeveon Clowney and then signing Graham. This would hurt the Saints and put Atlanta in position to have a Matt Ryan–Julio Jones-Graham offense that would be posted to dominate for the rest of the decade. By adding Clowney and Graham, would the Falcons be Super Bowl contenders? The team still has holes, but this might be the sort of desperate move Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith need to ensure long-term job security.
In 2013, Carolina had the second-oldest offense in the NFL (the Saints had the oldest); signing Graham would help ensure the long-term viability of the team as a Super Bowl contender. Without adding Graham, the fate of the offense next year is already a question mark. Left tackle Jordan Gross has retired, Steve Smith is on the decline, DeAngelo Williams turns 31 in April and Greg Olsen turns 29 next week. The team desperately needs to give Cam Newton some offensive firepower, and Graham would fit that bill — and harm the team’s clearest rival to NFC South supremacy. Practically, fitting in Graham seems implausible, as Carolina can barely afford to keep Greg Hardy. But if the Panthers can make the cap magic work, Carolina would instantly become a top-three team in the league.
New York Jets
The Jets aren’t Super Bowl contenders — they’re a middle of the pack team — but this might be the move needed to save Rex Ryan’s job. The Jets are in excellent salary cap shape: once the Mark Sanchez, Santonio Holmes, and Antonio Cromartie contracts are off the books or reworked, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold, and David Harris will be the only players making more than $3.6M in 2014. And, by all accounts, this is the deepest wide receiver draft in years. The Jets offense has been hard to watch for years, but the team could add Graham, a top rookie receiver, and sign a wide receiver like Eric Decker, Golden Tate, Hakeem Nicks, or Emmanuel Sanders. Suddenly, a garbage offense with a rookie quarterback would be a talent-rich offense that would at least let the team see what they have in Geno Smith. The value in having a coach like Ryan is that he should be able to “coach up” a less-than-stellar defense, which would mitigate losing two future first round picks. But the Jets defense already has star pieces — Muhammad Wilkerson, Quinton Coples, Sheldon Richardson, Dee Milliner, and Damon Harrison — and adding three offensive weapons could be enough to vault the Jets into contention in a down AFC. A Decker/Graham/Marqise Lee/Jeremy Kerley offense would bear no resemblance to recent Jets offenses, and that’s a very good thing.
New England Patriots
Tom Brady will be 37 on opening day; Bill Belichick turns 62 in a few months. How valuable is a 2016 first rounder to them? While the Patriots still have young talent, the window is closing shut on the Brady/Belichick/Vince Wilfork era. The Patriots offense took several steps back without Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez (among others) in 2013, and signing Graham would provide an immediate fix. An offense built around versatile players like Shane Vereen, Graham, and Rob Gronkowski would ensure that the Patriots are Super Bowl contenders for the final days of the Brady era.
Cincinnati is in excellent cap shape, which would allow the team to fit Graham into their cap space pretty easily. The Bengals don’t have many options with Andy Dalton — he’s too good to replace, but not good enough to build the team around. The solution? Surround him with the best supporting cast in the league. Jermaine Gresham has been a disappointment, and is in the final year of his contract. Cincinnati showed a desire for a two-tight end offense when the team drafted Tyler Eifert in 2013, but that set would work much better with Graham instead of Gresham. Even Dalton can direct a top-five offense with A.J. Green, Graham, Eifert, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Andrew Hawkins, and Giovani Bernard. After failing in the playoffs again, signing Graham might appeal as the type of bold move necessary to get out of first round purgatory. With a strong defense already in place, the addition of Graham would make Cincinnati second only to Denver for AFC favorite.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers have so many holes on defense that it’s hard to justify giving up two first round picks. But the Packers are in excellent cap shape and the temptation to pair Graham with Aaron Rodgers can’t be ignored. With Jermichael Finley’s career in jeopardy, Graham would both fix that hole and make the Packers instant Super Bowl contenders. An offense with Rodgers, Graham, Eddie Lacy, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and James Jones would be fascinating to watch and rival the scorched-earth 2011 edition.
After making the playoffs in 2012, the Vikings were the worst team in the NFC North in 2013. But the gap between last and first place was just three games, and Rick Spielman might view signing Graham as the key to turning around the franchise and saving his job. Minnesota had three first round picks last year, so perhaps they’d be less afraid of giving up two future ones. The Vikings aren’t in a championship window on paper, but the team must do something to get the most out of Adrian Peterson’s final few years. The future Hall of Fame running back turns 29 this month, which leaves only a couple of years to get him on the same field with a talent like Cordarrelle Patterson. Joining them with Graham might be enough to give the Vikings an elite offense regardless of who the quarterback is, and the hope would be that Mike Zimmer could take care of the defense. Minnesota just cut John Carlson, and a two-tight end offense with Graham and Kyle Rudolph, complemented with Peterson, Patterson, and Greg Jennings would instantly revitalize the team.